“Let them eat cake”

The last couple of issues of the United Methodist Reporter have featured articles on GracePoint UMC, a recent church plant in Wichita, Kansas, that grew quickly, but let the denomination this spring. It’s depressing to invest so much money, energy and excitement only to lose the fruit. But it shouldn’t be surprising to people familiar with the way the UMC tends to operate. With few exceptions, we don’t know what to do with high energy innovate leaders. High energy leaders who excel at working within the system, yes, we have plenty of places for them. But people who push hard and are non-conformists? Our system pretty much pushes them elsewhere.

The Reporter spoke with Dan Dick, a UM leader (soon to be on staff at the Wisconsin Annual Conference):

He feels the denomination got off track in the 1990s “when we veered off and started pursuing the church-growth movement” so popular among nondenominational churches. He likens that model to a new business start: Select a location in a growth area, get a dynamic CEO-type leader and find “two or three very deep pockets to draw from, to be able to launch a really nice facility, good parking, good equipment and technology.”

While that formula may work in a congregational setting, he said, it’s not especially beneficial to a connectional system like the United Methodist Church, which seeks to create communities of faith that are accountable within a denominational structure.

Focusing on numerical growth and expansion isn’t really central to the Methodist identity, Dr. Dick argues. And while United Methodist churches want to reach as many people as possible, the Wesleyan focus is instead on building communities that equip people to live as Christian disciples.

“That’s a very different thing,” Dr. Dick said. “It’s one of the reasons why we are traditionally and still are fundamentally a small-membership denomination.”

Most successful United Methodist church starts, he said, tend to have three things in common: They are a satellite of an existing congregation, they have a committed core group of leaders and they are designed to meet a specific need, such as a different racial or ethnic demographic.

GracePoint was a fairly good model, but its expansion was “poorly executed,” Dr. Dick said. Though the church plant sought to launch satellite campuses to reach different audiences, he said “they operated congregationally in a vacuum” and weren’t as concerned about where other United Methodist congregations were present. “They were going into a head-to-head competition rather than seeking ways to be collaborative and connectional.”

I read this and hear that (1) we need to keep our churches mono-cultural and (2) work hard to make sure everyone is happy. If Dr. Dick’s theory is correct that would explain why our denominational membership and evangelistic efforts boomed through the 1970s and 1980s, only to crater in the 1990s when we started to pay attention to the Church Growth Movement. But if that’s the case, why have we had so many books and articles before the 1990s decrying our lack of evangelism and our failure to reach people and grow churches?

I am in a position of no authority in the denomination. I pastor a small church in a small town. I am not charismatic in any sense of the word. My gifts are more in teaching and academia than in growing organizations. But I do know a few things.

1. We need to repent of our compulsion to keep people happy. In our local churches we work so hard to keep the long time members happy that we’re unwilling to make changes that might reach new people – even if those “new people”are our own children and grand children.

2. We need to be more concerned about people becoming followers of Jesus than we are concerned about them becoming OUR followers of Jesus.

3. We need to not only say we want young people in our churches, but we need to stop making them act like retired folks before we allow them to have a say in what we do.

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4 Responses to “Let them eat cake”

  1. JAy. says:

    My issue with the “Church Growth Movement” in the UMC denomination is making sure that the churches remain UMC. I do not mean that we cannot let them leave the denomination, but that they should be required to adhere to the denomination’s teachings and theology.

    Personally, I prefer to practice in a liturgical environment. The “Traditional” worship service in my church is right up my alley. However, I will not refuse others the right to worship in a “modern” environment, either. And if a church wants to only offer modern worship, that is fine, too. I probably won’t be a member, but I would never say that they are wrong, UMC or not.

    However, the UMC must be careful how far we let churches stray from UMC teachings. There is a church near my house that has decided that it will not baptize infants. This to me strays too far from the UMC theology to still be called UMC. Of course, how the UMC church handles a congregation like this is another issue. The members of that church love their pastor. (He is actually a very nice guy, from what interaction I have had with him.) Removing him could destroy the congregation. But should the church be allowed to continue membership with the UMC if they have their own teachings?

    Feel free to tell me that I am wrong, and that the church needs congregations with free thought and independence. But in my mind, there are core values that need to be upheld to consider one’s self a United Methodist. (Guess that is also why I didn’t make is as a Catholic.)

  2. rheyduck says:

    Yes, JAy, boundaries are good. We need them. We just need to identify the right ones to emphasize. From what I’ve seen of the UMC we are far from unity when it comes to figuring out which ones we’re really going require and where we’re going to allow flexibility.

  3. John Meunier says:

    Richard,

    Good thoughts. My reading of Dan Dick’s blog leads me to disagree with one of your take-aways from his quote. Dan has been a forceful advocate for discipleship. He would agree – I suspect – quite a bit with your notion that we should not be so focused on keeping people happy.

    His point about GracePoint was that when it looked to new locations it ignored or bypassed other local congregations rather than trying to work with them. Instead of saying to another church, let’s work together to minister to this community righ out your back door, they just forged ahead with little communication at all – which bruised feelings and created resistance. Working within the system might have led to better outcomes. Note the word “might” there.

    You can still disagree with that, but I’m pretty sure Dick would not disagree at all with your three points about discipleship and reaching young people.

  4. ryan says:

    I believe in the UMC we are approaching a stiffness that is most often associated with rigor mortis.

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